By Representative Johnny Mack Morrow and House Minority Leader Craig Ford
Most of us have always taken for granted that our children are safe at school. None of us are ever prepared to hear about what happened last month in Newtown, Connecticut or at Columbine High School almost 14 years ago.
Schools should be a safe place where our children can learn and grow without fear or danger. And when you consider how many schools there are in this country compared to how many school shootings occur, you see that most schools are very safe places.
But what the shootings at Columbine and Sandy Hook have taught us is that even safe schools can come under attack. Both Columbine and Sandy Hook were located in small, affluent communities where you would never expect a school shooting to occur. And even in our own state we had a school shooting at the University of Alabama in Huntsville in 2010 when a biology professor shot and killed three of her colleagues.
These tragedies force us to ask if we are doing enough to protect our children and the faculty at our public schools.
To that end, we are working to draft legislation that will give local schools systems new options to provide or increase their security force.
The first of these options is to create a program that would help pay to put a resource officer in every public school in Alabama. A school resource officer is typically an off-duty or retired law enforcement officer who is trained to use both lethal and non-lethal methods of subduing attackers. They are typically armed with firearms or tasers, and trained not only in how to use those weapons but also in how to protect them from being taken by an attacker.
There are many reasons every school should have a resource officer. Obviously, having a resource officer gives the students and faculty added protection. But studies have also shown that schools with resource officers have fewer instances of fighting and other misbehavior, as well as higher attendance. Having a resource officer in a school also sends a message to our children that they are valuable and worth protecting. We provided armed protection for the President and for our college football coaches. Surely we can also afford to provide our children with the protection that comes from having an armed resource officer in their schools.
The Legislative Fiscal Office estimates that the costs of putting a resource officer in each of Alabama’s 1,475 public schools would be about $50 million. But budgets are tight, and the governor is proposing to reduce the government’s workforce; not to add to it by hiring 1,475 new resource officers. So we need to compromise on the costs.
So one option could be to have the state pay for half the expense and let the local school systems pay the other half. That would reduce the state’s financial burden to $25 million for the schools that choose to participate.
But what if a local school system cannot afford to pay the other half for a resource officer? In some rural areas, the response time for law enforcement could be 20-30 minutes. What can we do to help these schools?
The legislation we will propose will address these situations by giving these schools another option. The principals at these schools would be allowed to determine if their security force was adequate. If these principals feel they need to bolster their security, they would have the option to create, in conjunction with local law enforcement, a volunteer security force consisting of existing employees.
The volunteers would have to be approved by the local sheriff or police chief. The sheriff or police chief would then be responsible for training and equipping these security forces, all of which would be paid for by an appropriation from the Education Trust Fund budget.
No child, parent, or educator should ever have to worry about school safety. But even in safe communities like Columbine and Newton, tragedy can occur. We need to be prepared to protect our children and educators. The legislation that we will introduce will give our schools options to increase their security, either by hiring a full-time, professionally trained resource officer or by creating a trained, volunteer security force. Our children’s safety should be our number one priority when the legislature returns to Montgomery next month!
Representative Johnny Mack Morrow is a Democrat from Red Bay. He has served in the Alabama House of Representatives since 1990. He represents Franklin and Colbert Counties, and is a retired business and economics Instructor from Northwest Junior College.
Representative Craig Ford is a Democrat from Gadsden. He has served in the Alabama House of Representatives since 2000. In 2010, Representative Ford was elected House Minority Leader by the House Democratic Caucus. He was re-elected Minority Leader in 2012.